Social Norms Theory: A Wellness Model For Health Promotion In Higher Education

Social norms theory provides the basis for a relatively new approach used in behavioral change programs. Well documented in research on college student behavior is the high influence peers have on students, particularly in regard to alcohol and drug use. Social scientists H. Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz further investigated peer influence on alcohol and drug use and evidenced a difference between what students actually do and what students perceive to be the norm. In studies considering over 100 diverse college campuses, they found that students regularly and grossly overestimate the drunken behavior of their peers. They termed this overestimation a "false norm." They hypothesized that this false norm of alcohol use created imaginary peer pressure to drink higher quantities and more frequently than would actually occur. It followed that if a method could be devised to effectively correct the false norm, then the quantity and frequency of drinking would be reduced.

In 1990, Michael Haines at Northern Illinois University was the first to apply the social norms theory in a program to reduce heavy drinking and its related harm. His campus-wide social norms media campaign delivered multiple messages in various forms to NIU students, informing them of the actual drinking norms of the student body. After the first year of the program, heavy drinking decreased 18 percent. Since then, several other colleges have had substantial reductions in heavy drinking using similar programs.

Different from past strategies to reduce heavy drinking that focused on drinking bans, punishment, scare tactics, and the unhealthy behaviors of the minority of students, the social norms approach takes a more positive and empowering tack to increase healthy behavior. Whereas the former methods exaggerate harm and contribute to the inaccurate perception that heavy and problem drinking is normal, social norms media campaigns characterize students as models of behavior. The typical student is accurately portrayed as a moderate drinker who cares about his or her fellow students and makes special efforts to protect him- or herself and others from alcohol-related harm. Attending to this positive and healthier normative behavior of students through various media helps influence the practice of it. Moreover, this positive norm approach seems to be effective at reducing heavy drinking among college students.


Perkins, H.W., Meilman, P.W., Leichliter. J.S., Cashin, J.R. & Presley, C.A. (1999). Misperceptions of the norms for the frequency of alcohol and other drug use on college campuses. Journal of American College Health, 47, 253-258.

Perkins, H.W. (1997). College student misperceptions of alcohol and other drug norms among peers: Exploring causes, consequences, and implications for prevention programs. In Designing Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Programs in Higher Education: Bringing Theory into Practice (pp. 177-206). Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.

Haines, M.P. (1998). Social norms a wellness model for health promotion in higher education. Wellness Management: Newsletter of the National Wellness Association, 14 (4, Winter).